Books About Italy I’m Compulsively Reading (and Re-Reading)

No matter where I am in the world, I have a shelf devoted to books about Italy. Which may be why, although I started out this post planning to write a gift guide — something I do every couple of years — I found that everything that came to mind to include was… a book.

While that partly speaks to the fact that I’m a nerd bookworm, it also speaks to something else: whether you’re interested in fiction or memoir, food or art, ancient history or World War II, there are a number of compulsively-readable books about Italy out there these days.

What is my bar for “compulsively readable”? In the last three years, I’ve gone through two transatlantic moves. Each time, I’ve had to winnow down my library. Most of the books on this list are ones that I found myself re-buying after my last move. That’s how much I couldn’t live without them.

So. Here are the books about Italy I’ve sometimes bought not once, but twice — and the person on your gift-giving list (other than you!) who might like them best.

The best book about Italy for the one on your list… who, faced with a table of magazines at the doctor’s office, always reaches for the New Yorker.

Haven’t heard of Elena Ferrante? First, crawl out from under your rock. Second, run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore to pick up the first novel in her “Neapolitan quartet”: My Brilliant Friend.

The series pins down human emotions, flaws and foibles with such searing precision, it’s sometimes almost excruciating to read. On the surface, it’s about two girls who grow up together in the shadows of a working-class neighborhood in postwar Naples. And if you love Italy, especially the south or bella Napoli, it will give you a raw, intense look at a people and culture that tend to be stereotyped, not examined.

Why take a day trip from Rome to Naples?

And yet, as in any true masterpiece, so many of the observations Ferrante makes apply far beyond the backstreets of Naples. For example…

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Palazzo Altemps: The Best Rome Museum Not On Your List

Palazzo Altemps, a great museum in Rome

I can completely geek out on museums in Rome. So here’s an embarrassing confession for you: until a few months ago, I’d never been to Palazzo Altemps. And that’s even though, as one of the National Rome Museums, Palazzo Altemps was on the same entry ticket as some of my other favorites — Palazzo Massimo and Crypta Balbi in particular.

I told you. Embarrassing. Even more so when I went in December and realized just how much I’d been missing.

Brief background: Palazzo Altemps is, itself, a stunning 15th-century palace (albeit one with foundations that date back to an ancient Roman house) just around the corner from Piazza Navona. In 1568, a German cardinal with a penchant for ancient sculpture purchased it, and thus the collection was born. Although many objects have since been parceled off to other museums (the Louvre, for one), some extraordinary pieces remain — backdropped by frescoed rooms with painted, wood-beamed ceilings. And did I mention that you might be in these rooms by yourself? (It seems I’m not the only one who left Palazzo Altemps near the bottom of my to-do list).

Like this guy: the Grand Ludovisi Sarcophagus, which dates to the 3rd century; it was discovered near the Porta Tiburtina in 1621.

The Grand Ludovisi Sarcophagus, one of the gems of the collection in the Palazzo Altemps
The Grand Ludovisi Sarcophagus, one of the gems of the collection in the Palazzo Altemps

Let’s take a closer look, shall we? Because in case you missed it: the expressions on the pair in the middle — the Roman soldier, and the barbarian he’s about to slaughter — seem like exquisite portrayals of the kind of emotions that would actually be running through your veins (if there were room for any aside from ongoing expletives, that is).

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Why the Domus Aurea Tour is a Must-Do (Updated for 2017!)

Domus Aurea tour

For years, you were out of luck if you wanted to take a tour of the Domus Aurea tour — i.e. the famed “Golden House” of Nero. But in 2014, it reopened to the public (on guided tours only)… and the visit just keeps getting better and better. (More in my update at the bottom of the post).

I haven’t seen this much excitement over a site’s opening since the Colosseum’s underground was unveiled back in 2010. And you know what? Having toured both, the excitement over the Domus Aurea may be even more merited.

(PS: Don’t miss my article on the Domus Aurea in the Globe & Mail!).

First, the basics. Emperor Nero built his palace back in 64AD. (Yes, he’s the “fiddled while Rome burned” guy; although that’s an urban legend, you can’t deny his, erm, ingeniousness in using the land conveniently cleared by the fire for his dream palace). The property, which included open gardens and pastures as well as rooms and galleries, stretched all the way from the Palatine Hill to the Esquiline. Some scholars place it at 300 acres.

And let’s just say that the term “Golden House” doesn’t even begin to describe the property’s dazzle and opulence. “The vestibule of the house was so big it contained a colossal statue 120 feet high, the image of Nero; and it was so extensive that it had three colonnades a mile long. There was a lake too, in fact a sea, surrounded with buildings as big as cities,” Suetonius wrote. (Nota bene: The Colosseum later was built on the site of that lake). “Behind it were villas with fields, vineyards and pastures, woods filled with all kinds of wild and domestic animals. In the rest of the house everything was coated with gold and adorned with gems and shells. The dining-rooms had fretted ceilings made of ivory, with panels that turned and shed flowers and perfumes on those below. The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolved day and night, like the heavens. He had baths supplied with sea water and sulphur water.”

In other words: Nero would have killed on MTV’s Cribs.

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Cleopatra Returns to Rome: New Exhibit at the Chiostro del Bramante

Cleopatra exhibit in Rome, Italy
A sculpture of Cleopatra done in her lifetime, one of the 180 pieces on display at the Cleopatra exhibit in Rome. Photo courtesy of Foto Musei Vaticani.

Cleopatra, history’s most famous (and possibly fascinating) queen, is the insipiration for a new exhibit in Rome: “Cleopatra: Rome and the Magic of Egypt.”

On at the Chiostro del Bramante until February, the show’s aim is to contextualize Cleopatra’s life and times. It brings together more than 180 pieces from the ancient world, including frescoes, mosaics, jewelry, coins, and, yes, portraits of the major players, including several never-before-publicly-shown portraits of Cleopatra herself.

Read more about the exhibit in my latest article for the BBC.

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An Exhibit of Stolen (and Recovered) Art, for the BBC

Stolen art on display in Rome
Fresco from a Pompeii villa that was looted from Italy, and then returned—and now on display at Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo.

Art looting is a serious problem in Italy. (And elsewhere). Don’t believe me? If you’re in Rome before November 5, check out the Capolavori dell’archeologia exhibit at Castel Sant’Angelo, which gives just a taste of the extent of the problem, thanks to stunning, priceless pieces that were stolen from Italy… and later recovered.

And if you can’t make it there—or want to know what to expect—make sure you check out my story on the exhibit for the BBC.

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Titian Comes to Rome’s Quirinale, And It’s a Show You Won’t Want to Miss

Titian exhibit at the Scuderie del Quirinale
Titian’s charming Danae, just one of dozens of masterpieces on display now at the Quirinale

The much-anticipated exhibit Tiziano (Titian) opened this week at Rome’s Scuderie del Quirinale. I have one word: Go! 

 So many retrospectives can’t get their hands on a painter’s best masterpieces, but not this one. There are no fewer than 39 works by Titian—you know, the most famous artist to ever come out of Venice, and the most important Italian artist of the 16th century. And they range from the incredible Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (which has an estimated value of 50 million euro, by the way) to the iconic La Bella to the charming Danae. 

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The Most Romantic Places in Rome

The most romantic places to propose or honeymoon in Rome
Looking for romance in Rome—whether you’re traveling here for Valentine’s Day, a honeymoon, or maybe even (!) to propose? You’re in luck.

No, I can’t promise you’ll meet the dark-eyed love of your life here. But if you’re already traveling with your sweetheart, you’re golden: Rome has to be one of the most romantic cities around.

Of course, lots of people tend to think that the most romantic spots are also the most famous (the Trevi Fountain, say, or the Spanish Steps). Call me jaded, but I think the 24/7 crowds and pushy rose-sellers kind of suck the romance out of them.

Want to find a spot that’s a little more tranquil… where you can actually grab a moment to yourself? Here are a few of my favorite, off-the-beaten-path romantic places in Rome. 

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How Should I Schedule My Sightseeing in Rome?

Not everything’s open every day in Rome. The Vatican museums and Sistine Chapel close one day a week; so do lots of favorite restaurants and shops.

So when planning your trip to Rome, it pays to have a basic idea of what day in the week is best for which sight or activity. Here’s help. (In the form of a “rhyme.” Move aside, Shakespeare Keats Dr. Seuss Eddie Mannix).

And here it is… in video form!

Dreaming of the Sistine Chapel? Then don’t go on a Sunday

Vatican museums, closed Sundays

You’ll also be out of luck if you were hoping to see the School of Athens.

The Vatican museums (which include the Sistine Chapel) are open every day but Sunday. On the last Sunday of the month, they are open and free, but it’s not something I recommend if you value your vacation time; the line is often three hours or more (and you can’t book a ticket in advance on the Vatican website). St. Peter’s Basilica is open daily; on Sunday, the Pope appears at 12pm to an audience on the square, and on Wednesday, he has his general audience at 10:30am.

Best time to go to the Vatican: Wednesday morning, as the museums tend to be emptier while the Pope does his audience; otherwise, Tuesdays, Thursdays or Fridays, since Saturday and Monday tend to be crowded with people who would have gone on Sunday.

And stay away from smaller churches—at least if it is midday

Most churches are open daily in Rome. However, many of the more off-the-beaten-path churches also close midday, some for as long as from 12pm to 4pm, so always check. On Sunday, remember that they may be holding Mass and more ceremonies than usual, which can make it more difficult (or forbidden) to walk around to sightsee. 

Best time to go: Morning or evening, except for Sundays (unless you want to see Mass).

On Monday, many museums are a no-go

Palazzo Massimo, closed Mondays

Palazzo Massimo, closed on Mondays

Most of Rome’s best museums close on Mondays, but are open every other day of the week. These include the Borghese GalleryPalazzo BarberiniPalazzo MassimoCrypta BalbiMAXXICastel Sant’Angelo, and the National Gallery of Modern Art.

Best time to go: Tuesday through Friday; weekends tend to be more crowded than weekdays (not that that’s much of a problem at some of these places, like the Crypta Balbi).

While for lots of restaurants, it’s the day of riposo

Many of Rome’s restaurants have one “day of rest,” even though this is no longer government-mandated. This day is typically—but not always—Monday, and sometimes Sunday for lunch and/or dinner as well (particularly for restaurants that are more elegant or upscale; since Sunday is a big pizza night, pizzerias are usually open Sunday). Some restaurants, like popular Da Francesco near Piazza Navona, close Tuesday instead.

Best time to show up without a reservation or calling in advance: Wednesday or Thursday. Popular places tend to have a wait on Friday or Saturday nights, and if you’re heading somewhere on a Monday, you’ll want to call in advance (or look it up) to make sure they’re open. 

There is a catacomb open every day (phew!)

Luckily, no matter what day you’re planning on going, at least one catacomb will be open. Just make sure it’s the right one! The catacombs of St. Sebastian close on SundaySanta Priscilla closes Monday, St. Domitilla closes Tuesday, and St. Callixtus closes Wednesday. They also close on most major holidays and over the lunch hour, so double-check the hours on the websites.

Best time to go to the catacombs: When they’re open—and not on the weekend, which tends to be more crowded.

And the Colosseum and forum are open daily, too

Rome's ancient sights open every day

Rome’s ancient forum

Most of Rome’s most famous ancient sights are open daily, including the Colosseum, forum, Palatine, and Pantheon (although the Pantheon does close slightly earlier on Sundays, at 6pm rather than 7:30pm). The Baths of Caracalla also open daily (but close at 2pm on Mondays).

Best time to go: Anytime—although to avoid lines and crowds at the Colosseum and forum, opt to either be there first thing in the morning (i.e. 8:30am), or later in the day (many people clear out by 3pm).

And shops can be tough on Sunday, unless they’re big and new

Shops in the heart of Rome’s center—particularly on Via del Corso, around Piazza Navona, and near major sights—are open every day. Especially the chains. (But we know how I feel about those). More interesting and better Smaller shops, which don’t have the staff to open daily, tend to close one day a week; for many, this is Sunday. Lots of them stay closed through Monday morning. Many of the smaller stores also close midday, like churches.

Best time to go shopping: Monday through Saturday, outside of lunchtime; to avoid shopping crowds in high-trafficked areas, try not to shop in the evening or on weekends.

 

Want more tips about what to do in the Eternal City? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here!

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Now, Go Behind Locked Doors in the Vatican—And Visit the Niccoline Chapel

Niccoline Chapel in the VaticanEver dreamed of going behind the scenes at the Vatican? Walking through locked doors? Ducking under velvet ropes? Admiring the incredible art and rooms closed to the public, like the world-famous Niccoline Chapel (above) or Bramante’s staircase?

Good news. Now, your dream can come true.

Two tour operators now offer VIP access to the Vatican’s most hidden gems. Walks of Italy just launched its “VIP Access: Vatican Behind the Scenes & Sistine Chapel” experience, while Dark Rome offers the “VIP Vatican & Private Sistine” tour. 

(Update, 7/5/2012: You can also find this tour on Viator, where it’s named the “VIP Access: Sistine Chapel Private Viewing and Small-Group Tour of the Vatican’s Secret Rooms.” However, Viator is not a tour provider; it is an aggregator. There is no such thing as a “Viator guide” or “Viator tour.” In this instance, this tour is not Viator’s, but rather Dark Rome’s, tour [which makes it very misleading, and incorrect, that the Viator tour description says it is a “Viator exclusive”]; people who book with Viator will be put on a Dark Rome tour, with a Dark Rome guide, exactly as if they’d booked it directly through Dark Rome. Therefore, my description below of Dark Rome’s VIP Vatican tour should also be applied to Viator’s).

In both experiences, in a maximum group of 10, clients are led through the Vatican and behind closed doors by a Vatican guard (and their guide). That’s how they see such famed (but inaccessible) gems as the famous staircase of Bramante, the Gabinetto delle Maschere (with mosaics from Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli and the “Three Graces,” one of the world’s most famous ancient Roman sculptures), and the terrace of the Loggia Scoperta, with its stunning view over Vatican City. (This blog post by Walks of Italy has lots of photos of what all these look like).

But the most exciting stop is the exploration of the Cappella Niccolina. This was the papal chapel frescoed by early Renaissance master Fra Angelico in the mid-15th century, before Michelangelo was even born. Filled with exquisite frescoes that happen to be some of the most seminal of the Renaissance, this chapel is almost always closed to the public. The chance to experience it, never mind in a group of just 10 people, is phenomenal.

So far, the only way to visit these spots is on one of these two tours. Not on your own. Not even with a Vatican guide. Just on the Walks of Italy or Dark Rome tour.

That’s not to say these two tours are exactly the same. Yes, they’re both 3 hours long. Yes, they both visit these hidden spots, as well as the Vatican’s more accessible (but unmissable!) areas like the Raphael Rooms and Sistine Chapel. Yes, they both include skip-the-line access to the Vatican museums.

The big difference is in the Sistine Chapel. Although both tours explore the Sistine Chapel, the Dark Rome version visits the Sistine Chapel for half an hour after it closes to the public. (The Walks of Italy tour visits it as normal, but does include skip-the-line access to St. Peter’s Basilica upon exiting).

That leads to the other big difference: the price. The Walks of Italy tour costs €79 per adult, while the Dark Rome tour costs €220 per adult. 

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Two More Art Opportunities in Rome

Manzu piece in Rome museum of municipal modern art

A fan of art? And of Rome? Then you’ll be happy to know that two new opportunities for viewing some of the city’s best pieces have just opened up—on both the modern and Renaissance sides.

Check out my two latest pieces, “Palazzo Farnese Now Offers English Tours” and “A Home for Art Reopens in Rome,” for the New York Times. (Photo: Massimo Siragusa for the Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Roma Capitale).

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